A group which, though despised and rejected by society, remembers and preserves the secret knowledge necessary to keep the world from ultimate Thinning. In other words, members of PEs are despised and rejected precisely for that which they retain: their knowledge of the Secret History of the World, their Talents, their memory of the Elder Gods, their familiarity with the old True Names and the real Map of the territory (which allows them to escape the minions of the false king), their direct descent from the Elder Races, their memory of the way through the Labyrinth, their access through Portals to the Golden Age ... But they sometimes do more than retain the past; it is always possible that the PE may be the Secret Masters of the world (> Fantasies of History).
PEs can be found in all forms of fantasy and Supernatural Fiction. In the former, they are almost always viewed favourably, and are normally seen as preserving that which must be preserved, and rediscovered, if the Land or world is to regain its health; the final Recognition of them is likely to generate Healing – a process typical of fully structured Fantasy. In supernatural fiction, on the other hand, the PE may well be seen as inimical. There can be no presumption that an association of Witches, or a secret society nested within the covert imperium of the Knights Templar, or a coven of immortal Tibetans is either good or evil.
The history of the Western World provides a convenient model for the notion of the PE through the fall of the Roman Empire, a collapse which impelled Europe into the Dark Ages, a time when much that was valuable from the ancient world was preserved in enclaves around the periphery of Europe – or so it has been widely believed. Consequently, "invasive" groups – Jews, gypsies (the term comes from Egypt), Knights Templar, beggars, Jesters and other travelling players, Orientals, assassins, Witches, monks – were all varyingly likely to be thought of as secretly in control, or secretly planning to wrest power from the just rulers of the world. Sinister cabals, most of them reflecting the imagined agendas of outsider groups in real life, have always been a staple of supernatural fiction.
Before the 20th century, very few of these fictional cabals were seen as benevolent. More recently, they tend to be regarded as bearers of authentic wisdom, like the Little Brothers of the Apostles in Patrick Harpur's The Serpent's Circle (1985), and are often depicted as victims of persecution by organized Religion, through inquisitors and witchfinders. A novel like Knights of the Blood: Vampyr-SS (1993) by Scott MacMillan (as "presented" by Katherine Kurtz) neatly encapsulates the shift: a group of Crusader knights have suffered Transformation into Vampires, but refuse to live off human beings. Trouble comes to them in World War II, when a Nazi officer attempts to make them into an Aryan cadre of the undead, and to rule the world through them.
Fantasy featuring PEs includes C J Cherryh's Morgaine sequence, Michael de Larrabeiti's Borribles sequence, various novels by Barbara Hambly, Tanya Huff's Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light (1989), Katherine Kurtz's Deryni sequence, Tanith Lee's Birthgrave sequence, Megan Lindholm's Wizard of the Pigeons (1986), Elizabeth Scarborough's Songkiller Saga and Empire of the Eagle (1993) by Susan M Shwartz and Andre Norton. [JC]